Theme and Variation

For it all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves. The least of things with a meaning is greater than the greatest of things without.

– Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul

First, thanks to Judge Fredd (@faxional) on Twitter for this week’s topic.

Judge Fredd asks about story themes. Do I use them? See a use for them? And if I do, how difficult is it?

Short answer: “yes, intentionally; yes, absolutely; easy to do, hard to do well.” Long answer:

Every coherent story has a theme, and possibly more than one. The only questions are whether the author intentionally inserts and develops themes, and whether the reader picks up on what was intended or takes away a message entirely his own. Theme is distinct from character (who), setting (where and when), and plot (what and how); it provides the “why?” Take Starship Troopers, for example. Many themes are explicitly explored in dialogue; Heinlein clearly intended themes of militarism, duty, citizenship, and coming of age. Intentional or not, many readers take away praise of fascism. The CHARACTERS praise the fascist system, but is that not what one would expect of them in character? Heinlein is more overt in his messaging than many authors, putting political philosophy in the mouths of his characters, but it is possible that he intended that it be contrasted with what was necessary for the characters to sustain their beliefs. When one looks at the eternal war, expansionism, and cheapening of life required to sustain Heinlein’s future society, it is entirely possible that declaring it a utopia says more about the reader than the author. The same goes for Heinlein’s praise of the grunts, the common infantry soldier. Many readers appear to read this as promoting war for conquest, endorsing the constant meat grinder of combat the men endure, but one can praise the men who volunteer for such things without thinking that the wars themselves are necessary or desirable. Heinlein himself was a huge fan of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, a decidedly anti-war book that reads as a reply to Starship Troopers, so he was at the very least open to hearing rebuttals. Regardless, the theme that the reader derives is not always the one the author intends.

What about authors who don’t intend a theme at all? “I just want to tell a story, this isn’t message fiction.” Well, there’s still a message. Who wins? At what, and how? What are the consequences? “John Carter; becomes Warlord of Mars and gets the girl; by strength, guile, and diplomacy.” You’ve got a good guy using his unique strength to protect the weak and give them a just ruler, that’s plenty of message. Could Burroughs have devoted long flashbacks to John’s time in an antebellum Virginia schoolhouse, where he learned noblesse oblige from an old Cavalier? Sure, I guess, but it isn’t really necessary. John has plenty of time to show us what he believes, and the heroic theme is familiar and timeless enough that it is relatively unambiguous to the reader.

Personally, in my work, I’m paying close attention to the themes I’m developing. I want most of them to be unambiguous, but I don’t want to resort to Heinleinian soliloquy to do it. Instead, each character arc, each book story arc, and the series story arc have intentional themes that I try to play up. Some, especially the character themes, have changed as I write. My protagonist as originally drafted had a relatively weak developmental arc, but by focusing more on the theme of fatherhood than on my original concept of redeeming generational wrongs he became a much stronger and more compelling character. His “why” can now connect with more people, and provides stronger motivation. I doubt Joe Haldeman will ever react to my work as positively as Heinlein reacted to his, but I hope to be worthy to share a shelf with both of them.

You think your life’s so grand
You don’t believe a word you say
Your feet aren’t on the ground
You let your life just slip away
Just so uncertain of your body and your soul
The promises you make your mind goes blank
And then you lose control

– Testament, Practice What You Preach

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